TED TALK: Chimamanda Adichie – The Danger Of A Single Story (unrelated, but a must-watch for writers)
Screenwriting: You Get What You Pay For
Everyone in the film industry theoretically agrees that the key to a good film is a strong screenplay. But like anything else, in screenwriting you get what you pay for.
To find out what the South African film industry was investing in writers, and what it could expect in return, I emailed the entire Writers Guild of South Africa (WGSA) database, as well as almost every screenwriter I’ve ever had recommended to me, and I asked them what they’ve been paid for South African screenplays.
I received about 25 responses – largely from the screenwriters I most wanted to hear from – and I also spoke to entertainment lawyers and five of South Africa’s top producers. The responses were wildly varied, but some yardsticks did emerge.
HOW MANY SCREENWRITERS DOES SOUTH AFRICA REALLY NEED?
Feature film screenwriting is never going to solve South Africa’s unemployment woes.
In 2011, a record number of South African films were released at cinemas: 19. In 2012, that dropped to 14, if you count Lucky as a South African film despite having a foreign writer-director in Avie Luthra. A Million Colours similarly had a foreign writer-director in Peter Bishai, but South African producer Andre Pieterse co-wrote the screenplay.
So there were 12.5 South African screenplays made into movies that were released in 2012, with no screenwriter credited on more than one project.
In addition, the National Film and Video Foundation funds the development of 15 feature film projects per year, but only one application per organisation, individual or company will be approved per financial year.
In the last three years, only Christo Compion has managed to have more than one screenplay produced in a single year: Susanna van Biljon and Egoli – The Movie were both released in 2010.
In fact, in those three years, the only other people to have more than one screenplay produced and released at the South African box office were writer/director Craig Freimond (Jozi and Material) and the writing team of actor Leon Schuster and director Gray Hofmeyr (Shuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to 2010 and Mad Buddies).
So it would be wildly optimistic to say that the South African market has space for 20 feature film writers to have one screenplay produced per year.
WHAT’S A SCREENPLAY WORTH INTERNATIONALLY?
If South African screenwriters were paid Writers Guild of America (WGA) rates, those 20 could live comfortably. The WGA 2011 Schedule of Minimums spells out minimum rates clearly from now until January 2014, with separate minimums for low and high budget films.
It’s all neatly broken down into installments: delivery of the treatment, delivery of the first draft, and delivery of the final draft.
They have prices for the individual components too:
Of course, the WGA considers $5 million the dividing line between low-budget and high-budget, so they’re obviously not talking about the average South African film, which is usually about a tenth of that.
WHAT’S A SCREENPLAY WORTH IN SOUTH AFRICA?
South Africa doesn’t have anything as clear-cut as the WGA’s Schedule of Minimums, although WGSA is working on their equivalent as you read this.
For now, as entertainment lawyer Emma Kingdon says, it’s about whatever a willing buyer and a willing seller agree to.
The highest fee I heard of was R350 000, with half deferred. That was the writer’s third produced feature.
Other figures I heard of:
•R250 000 for three drafts, before the writer had a produced film
•R225 000 on the first day of principal photography, as well as two percent of (any) net profit. The writer in question had one produced film before this
•R210 000 minimum for the screenplay and book rights from a South African novelist, plus 2% of the producer’s share of the profits
•R200 000 for a first feature. Someone else is writing a script currently for R200 000, having one produced film to their name
•R200 000, with R40 000 of that set aside for a script editor: the amount the NFVF funds for development
•R150 000 from a local production company as a writer for hire on a screenplay
•R150 000 deferred on a R6.9million film, which is still waiting to recoup
•R120 000 a screenplay – I heard of four such sales
•$12 500 for a first draft to an international studio
•R60 000 for an adaptation – I heard of this twice
•R50 000 for a first-time writer/director, from the R100 000 development funding the film received from the NFVF
•R45 000 from SABC2 for a feature film screenplay
•R30 000 from a production company to a writer/director to finish his screenplay
•R30 000 a month over six months to write a film
•R25 000 from the SABC to turn a mini-series into a feature film
•R25 000 per draft, plus two percent of the budget, plus 2.5% of the producer’s net (with a floor and ceiling in the country). This is for a prominent South African writer to adapt her own novel.
•R20 000 a screenplay – I heard that three times.
The lowest I heard of was R15 000, ironically for the first screenplay from one of South Africa’s most successful screenwriters.
Self-produced writers generally had it worst: most of them told me they didn’t get paid anything for their scripts, or put whatever money they did receive back into the film.
Overall, as one South African producer told me, “The average South African screenplay sells for around R150 000.” A writer with an international agent agreed: he aims for between R150 000 and R200 000 when writing for South African clients. Another writer told me between R100-R120 000 was an old price.
How writers feel about these figures will be largely shaped by how many co-writers they have and how long they take to write a screenplay. There is no standard: I heard of first drafts written in a few days, or three weeks, or six-to-eight weeks, or ten weeks, or two hours a day for five months, or a year, or 18 months. I heard of subsequent drafts written in four weeks, or two months, but not full time. I heard of two to three months per screenplay, but I also heard of research alone taking three to six months and screenplays taking three years on and off, or eleven.
Craig Freimond says, “For years, many producers and organizations have been using this figure of R150 000 for a script. I don’t think this has been updated for years. Maybe for a first-time/ younger/ inexperienced writer or a young person but for someone like me – with bonds and kids, etc – it’s way too low. Material took us six to seven years to develop the script. I personally think that R350-500 000 is a better mark for a script but obviously that is for a more experienced writer who maybe has had some success…”
One of the most common strategies in determining the price of the script is to align this to the size of the budget: I heard of deals for between 1-3.5%; 1.5-2%; 1.5-3%; 2.5%-5%; and 2.5% for the screenplay and 1% for the book rights. While two people mentioned a mythical 10% they thought was paid overseas, I didn’t hear of anything confirmable above five percent, which would then cover all written material.
Since South African film budgets are shrinking, not growing, a percentage approach doesn’t always add up to much.
Carey McKenzie says, “It’s important to factor in the level at which local films are being financed in South Africa. There is effectively a limit of R7million for the current public finance model. 3% of that would be R210 000, which could perhaps be considered a minimum. It’s still low though for a process that usually takes at least a year.”
Many deals had floor and ceiling amounts, plus a percentage share of the net profits, which in the current South African market isn’t worth much. The bulk was normally paid on or before the first day of principal photography, less the option and any writer’s advances already paid.
This is part of the problem: apart from the NFVF, no one is funding development, so writers are generally writing on risk after hours, while paying their bills with other work.
Carey says, “Because there’s limited development funding available, some part of any writer’s fee is likely to be deferred. This should entitle us to higher fees, as we’re taking a risk on whether or not the producer will actually raise the budget.”
Of course, the business isn’t just about selling screenplays: there’s potential income from options too. Once again, the figures I heard varied vastly.
There’s a widely held misconception that it’s a legal requirement that you are “paid” for an option, so I heard of a number of R1 deals. However, Kingdon says this isn’t a legal requirement in terms of South African law.
Most screenplay options seem to be for between R5 000 and R50 000 per year, or 10% of the purchase price if you have an international agent.
A successful novelist told me that for South African novels published locally, the ballpark option is R10 000-R30 000, with rights selling for R70 000 to R250 000, with R150 000 the most likely. This novelist also said that for South African novels translated and published abroad, options go for between R75 000-R150 000, with the rights sold for between R800 000 and R1 400 000, plus a profit-share. But I heard of a good South African novel adapted into a screenplay by its author, where the option agreement was R1 for the first year, and R5 000 for a six-month extension, with the fees split equally between the screenplay adaptation and the book rights. I also heard of a South African novel that was successful overseas but optioned for R50 000 per year, plus 2% of the budget (with a floor and ceiling price built in) plus 2.5% of the producer’s net profit.
A producer told me they’d optioned a play for R5 000 a year for a number of years, but would defer more and pay less the next time.
One producer said they’d paid from R1 up to $30 000 on options, while another producer told me they’d paid anywhere up to $50 000, but as a rule they tried to keep option fees as low as possible.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER… AND PAY YOUR BILLS
So how are South African writers paying for 2.5 children and a white picket fence? Many aren’t. One writer I spoke to says he has a supportive mother and lives like a hermit. “I haven’t had a chick in years,” he says. “I read and I work; that’s all I can afford to do.”
It’s one approach, but not necessarily helpful in generating the broad life experience that’s part of being a writer.
Another approach is to target international work.
One South African writer with an international agent says he now earns EUR100 000 and up, depending on the budget. He gets 2.5% of the budget and 5% of the producer’s net profit, although he says there’s always a ceiling, usually around EUR150 000.
Another has one UK and two US option agreements. He says this international work has “cross-subsidised” his work on local projects he likes, where South African producers did not have immediate development money.
I spoke to eight South African writers with international agents, so working internationally is possible, despite South Africans being relationally disadvantaged by our geography.
Adventures in Zambezia writer-director Wayne Thornley says, “There is definitely a business model for being a screenwriter in South Africa, but it depends on writing quality scripts that will be bought by international producers. My advice would be: mainly focus on the international market and make sure your scripts are good enough to compete there. The great freedom in the international marketplace is that it is open to absolutely anyone who can write a world-class script.”
Perhaps the most common approach is to become what Variety call a hyphenate: normally a writer-director but also occasionally writer-actors and writer-producers.
Of the 12.5 South African scripts produced and released theatrically in 2012, only three were written by non-hyphenates: Wolwedans in Die Skemer (Leon van Nierop); Die Wonderwerker (Chris Barnard); and 31 Million Reasons (Lev David).
Hyphenates are generally people who don’t believe they can survive solely as screenwriters, so have diversified.
Unfortunately, this often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy when wearing multiple hats on a single project: generally, hyphenates told me that they were paid as directors or producers, but that their script payments were “deferred,” “mitigated” or “non-existent” – the latter particularly in the case of independent writer-director-producers.
A variation on this hyphenate trend is the writer who becomes a script editor. The NFVF assigns script editors to every development project they fund and the going rate seems to be between R40 000 and R65 000 an edit.
However, to get onto the NFVF list, you probably need to go through their Johannesburg-based Sediba Spark and Sediba Masters writing programmes, which their websites says are one weekend a month for five months and one weekend a month over eight months respectively, although the current Masters course is running for a year for writers and 14 months for editors. These courses involve a large amount of homework and don’t generate any revenue.
Alternatively, you can rewrite other people’s scripts: in researching this article, I heard of R12 500 for a complete rewrite; R12-R15 000 per draft; R15-R30 000; and anywhere between $2500 and $10 000.
Many writers who started out wanting to write features move instead into the more regular flow of TV work. “TV is where the bread and butter money lies,” says Thandi Brewer. “I try to urge all writers to look to the future and think of becoming show runners for TV.”
Here the problem is not a shortage of work, but whether you can churn it out quickly enough at R750 a minute for the SABC, bearing in mind that this is the overall development fee proportionately split between writers, script editors, and producers, so writers are likely to be paid between R6000-R10 000 per half hour episode. Apparently M-Net pays better, as do soaps in general.
“If you want security in the South African industry landscape, then soap writing is the way to go,” says Thandi. “I’ve never been able to work in soaps – I just haven’t got the headspace – so, while I’ve worked on some amazing projects and have loved doing them, I am far less financially stable than South African soap writers.”
I’ve also started noticing a rise in in-house writers, like Anthony Silverston and Raffaella Delle Donne at Triggerfish or Brent Dawes at Sunrise. Certainly it makes sense to invest in a person rather than a single product: why pay for the fruit when you can buy the tree?
DO FULL-TIME SCREENWRITERS EXIST?
There are full-time feature film screenwriters who are making it work, although a producer I spoke to guessed there were under five, which is probably accurate if you discount novelist-screenwriters.
Ironically, one of the most successful has yet to see one of his screenplays made into a film. Paul Johnson has completed 14 screenplays since 2006, thanks to writing for six to eight hours a day every day since then, including weekends and holidays. All 14 are either optioned, sold or attached to production companies here and overseas.
“I started writing my first screenplay in April 2006 with one key piece of business knowledge courtesy of Blake Snyder – that, long before his movies had hit the screen, he was already making a sustainable living writing screenplays in the spec market,” says Paul. “I simply proceeded on the basis that the business required one to either sell your work or impress people enough with it to get commissions. I personally don’t share the view that there’s no market for South African screenwriters. It’s not been my experience. If you write a good spec, you can get a good start. Alternatively, you can keep writing bad specs that go nowhere before bitterly concluding the problem’s with the buyers. Except… they can’t all be wrong.”
So is there a business model for being a screenwriter in South Africa? I heard nine resounding nos, from some lavishly talented people who have a better chance than most of finding it. Roger Hawkins said he’ll let me know when he cracks it. Wayne Thornley said yes, if you can make it in the international market, which is a big if. Marc Bloom was my only resounding yes. And Deon Meyer said, “The best (and only) business model is to write stuff that will sell.”
Originally published in The Writers Guild of South Africa Magazine